Friday, May 09, 2008

Talking for the last time

I had an Irish grandmother. I'm sure you didn't know that, but then nor did I until a few minutes ago. She came from Belfast. I never met her, but not because she died before I was born. On the contrary, she died asking to see the three grandchildren she had never met - my brother, my sister and me.

Blogging has been light recently for a number of reasons. Some concern business: I've been busy. But there's also a personal issue. My father just went into a nursing home because he's senile. He probably has several forms of dementia but one involves the attrition of the blood supply to the brain, the result of numerous small strokes. I'm told you can actually see these happening. His deterioration recently has been severe. I last spoke to him about a month ago and while it was a very limited conversation, it was recognisably with him. It's now impossible to have a conversation with him at all. He isn't there any more. There are no lucid intervals.

When someone dies that's the position you find yourself in, as a survivor. You can't talk to them any more. The things that were still unsaid will always remain so. In that sense, my father is already dead. But if that's the test, he has always been dead. The things that went unsaid with him did so, on the whole, because of the sort of man he was. When his Irish mother died she wasn't just asking to see her grandchildren, she was asking to see the son who had refused to have any contact with her for forty years. She even hallucinated, thinking that one or other of his brothers was he. His brothers told him this but still he would not go.

He was obsessed with the injustices of his childhood and would talk about them at length. At the age of 14 he won a scholarship to a good school in Winchester but his father wouldn't allow him to take it up and made him go to work. He talked about this a great deal but he never talked about his mother. I knew absolutely nothing about her until I was in my twenties and visiting my uncle Des in Vancouver, who I have just been talking to on the 'phone. When I say "absolutely nothing", that's what I mean; no mention of her had ever been made in my presence before then. I'm certain of that, I'm cursed with a good memory.

I had exactly one conversation with my father about this, maybe fifteen years ago. He'd have been in his late sixties and seemed to have regrets. That's not quite right. It's more that the face of an older man rearranged itself, briefly, into the crumpled features of a small boy who believed his mother had abandoned him.

I'm instinctively dismissive of counselling and its cousins, but it does seem to be the case that there's only one escape route for ideas that plague a person, and that's out through the mouth. I suppose writing is a sort of surrogate mouth. My father never allowed himself that safety valve for the things that mattered most to him, and he will take the regrets that caused him to his grave.

But the immediacy of my father's death, because even in a literal sense he has a very short time left, provides a sharp reminder that we never actually know when our last conversation with anyone we care about will be. Every conversation could be our last. When I spoke, a few weeks ago, to my father on the 'phone I had no idea that would be the last time, but it was.

It would be fatuous and platitudinous to suggest every conversation should be approached as though it were the last one, but sometimes some of those conversations will be just that. I'm not writing this because I want to suggest some marvellous way of averting that fact. It's just a fact.

I'll fly out to Australia for my father's funeral, no doubt later this year. It's a long flight, about 22 hours, which will give me time to reflect. I've spent all my adult life trying not to be like my father. In his last months he's given me a reason to wish to emulate him.

Dementia is frightening, and his recent delusions were often fearful. Only two months ago he took the car and drove into the tiny town where they now live (that should be the past tense - I need to learn new habits of speech), crunching the gatepost as he reversed out of the drive. It could have been worse. He then spent an hour running into shops telling people my mother had been kidnapped by gunmen, probably a flashback to the time she was held, in her 70s, by armed bandits in the Andes. That led to his first short spell in a nursing home. He has lived in a state of fear for six months now. But still, at the last, with his final lucidity, he actively scorned the false comforts of religion. That was a constant in his life; he refused to have his children baptised, for example. I'm grateful to him for that.

I'm grateful that he scrimped and saved and made sure I had the education he was denied. And I've lived long enough to reverse the adolescent cry "I didn't ask to be born!" I didn't, but I'm still grateful for it - for life itself. So though I have very ambivalent feelings about him, I mourn the passing of my father. I'm grateful for everything he gave me. I didn't like him, but I did love him and I regret I never told him that. But we have talked for the last time, and I won't be able to put that right.


Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful piece.

Dementia is a terrible thing, saw man Grandmother go that way over a couple of years. Not good at all.

I hope someone pumps me full of morphine if I'm going that way.

Anonymous said...

"Dementia is frightening.."

So true, and so much more evil an illness than cancer...

Anonymous said...

My own parents died suddenly, but I saw the dreadful decline of my parents-in-law, and the price exacted on my wife. Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

Och, I'll try to cheer you up.
Irish Alzheimer's is when they forget everything but the grudges.

Anonymous said...

God bless, mate - I've never commented before but I've been a lurker for a while.

Best wishes from me, too - I have elderly parents who are still relatively healthy but I know that the day will soon come when that's not the case any more, and that scares me.

I can only try to imagine what you're going through right now but again, all the best.

Unknown said...

I'd just like to echo the best wishes. My father-in-law also has early onset dementia caused by micro-strokes. He's still active and physically healthy, but his memory is...not what it was, and getting worse.

And only 64 years of age.

We really don't know how long we have.